Heroes awarded for dramatic alpine rescue

A team of rescuers has received top honours for risking life and limb to save an injured woman trapped in an icy crevasse high in the Southern Alps.

South Westland Alpine Cliff Rescue members Marius Bron, Jonathan Hattrell, Richard Bottomley and Sam Innes were presented with a New Zealand Search and Rescue Council (NZSAR) Gold Award at Parliament this evening by Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse.

Other search and rescue teams recognised at the ceremony were presented with certificates of achievement for difficult missions on mountains, in the surf, and in Antarctica.

On March 7 last year, German mountain climber Sabine Hellenbrandt slipped down the western slope of Glacier Peak, located at the head of Fox Glacier.

She landed on a ledge deep within a crevasse, breaking her arm and ankle.

After her climbing partner trekked 2.5km to raise the alarm, the alpine cliff rescue team arrived at the scene. The helicopter landed above the peak, 3000m high on a razorback ridge. 

During the mission, the cloud thickened and visibility reduced to 1m, which meant the team had to camp overnight with Hellenbrandt, protecting her from the cold until she could be safely flown out.

NZSAR said the rescue had been conducted in extreme conditions - poor visibility, at altitude, and in steep glacial terrain.

The rescuers chose to carry out the operation "at a calculated personal risk", and had they not done so it was unlikely Hellenbrandt would have survived the night.

Speaking ahead of the ceremony, the rescue team were reluctant heroes.

"There was an embarrassment factor," team leader Marius Bron said about finding out they would receive the award.

"We were just doing what comes naturally." 

Rescuer Richard Bottomley, who spent the night beside Hellenbrandt in the crevasse, filling hot water bottles every hour, said it had been the "best outcome ever".

"It's at the back of your mind when you get a call-out that you might find a body."

Pilot Sam Innes described the rescue as one of the more intense moments of his career. It had been "quite a surprise" to win the award, he said.

"We're pretty blown away to get national recognition."

Antarctica New Zealand and the United States Antarctic Program were among those presented with certificates of achievement at the ceremony, for their efforts in attempting to find three Canadian aircrew killed when their Twin Otter aircraft crashed in Antarctica's Queen Alexandra Range. 

Although the bodies could not be recovered, the joint search and rescue team had "worked tirelessly" in extreme conditions, NZAR said.

Another mission which ended tragically but demonstrated the skill of the rescuers involved was a Labour Weekend rescue on Mt Taranaki, involving the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue and Taranaki LandSAR.

The massive search to locate four overdue climbers was undertaken in horrific weather conditions. While two made it out, one was found dead, and another was found seriously hypothermic and died shortly after.

Recognised for a dramatic rescue in the Cook Strait was a crew from the Wellington Westpac Rescue Helicopter's Life Flight Trust, who plucked three men from a stricken yacht in 12-metre seas with winds up to 110kmh.

After much difficulty, with the helicopter being buffeted by turbulence, the crew was finally able to get the rescue hook onboard and winch the men to safety.

Surf life savers from Sunset Beach in the Waikato and Whakatane also received certificates for undertaking dangerous rescues of people trapped on rocks, saving them from hypothermia and potential drowning.

For achievement in support activities, Coastguard Canterbury received a certificate for its efforts in developing training material for volunteers. Surf Life Saving New Zealand was recognised for its coastal risk management project at Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel.

The awards were presented to those who made a significant contribution to search and rescue in New Zealand during 2013.